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City of Saints and Madmen
Jeff VanderMeer
Prime, 460 pages

City of Saints and Madmen
Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania in 1968, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. His recent books include The Book of Lost Places (Dark Regions Press), Dradin, In Love (Buzzcity Press), Dradin, In Love & Other Stories (Oxy Publishing, Greece), and The Early History of Ambergris (Necropolitan Press). His publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, has done a number of titles including The Troika, by Stepan Chapman which won the Philip K. Dick Award. Other work has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award. He lives with his fiancée Ann Kennedy, publisher and editor of Buzzcity Press.

He is doing a chat Thursday night, June 13, 2002 at 7:00 p.m. EST at RevolutionSF.

Jeff VanderMeer Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Jeff VanderMeer
SF Site Excerpt City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: City of Saints and Madmen
SF Site Review: The Exchange

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Ian Nichols

This is more an invitation than a book. It is an invitation to wake up in Ambergris, after dreaming of Earth. That is, in fact, a theme in one of the four novellas which compose the first section of City of Saints and Madmen. In "The Strange Case of X," a writer, confined to an asylum in Chicago, must explain to a psychiatrist his delusions regarding the imaginary city of Ambergris. But which city is the delusion? Ambergris or Chicago. As the story progresses, the reader becomes unsure of which is which, and their own location becomes uncertain. Do they read of Ambergris on Earth, or do they read of the delusions of Earth in Ambergris?

It is the fully-realised nature of Ambergris which makes it possible to go beyond simple diegesis to real belief. This detailed realisation is exemplified in "The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris," which explains how the fabulous city came to be, and its lusty, mysterious past. The details are not those of mere technique, but those which can only be incorporated by a writer who has a true vision of another place, another time. They are the feelings of people, the true history of a race of Saints and Madmen, with generous footnotes which parody the dustier, dryer tomes which purport to explain the history of the world.

Those saints and madmen are represented by the other two stories of the quartet, "The Transformation of Martin Lake" and "Dradin, in Love." The first examines the career of the greatest painter of the city, and how he comes to represent, with his art, the rococo intricacies and beauties of Ambergris, as well as her Byzantine affairs. The second plunges into the overwhelming romance of a failed priest, bewitched by the beauty of a woman in a window. With him, we encounter the arcane savagery which underpins Ambergris, the grey caps and more human monsters who lurk at the edges of the city's greatest celebration, the Festival of the Freshwater Squid.

The appendices which form the latter half of City of Saints and Madmen expand the world of Ambergris, tying back into the main stories with the deftness of a sennet. We see the notes of X, the history of the Hoegbotton family, the mighty trading emperors who rule the commerce of the city, and are given an insight into the workings of the fabled King Squid, among other things. It is this verisimilitude, this act of creation, which eventually leaves the reader wondering what is real and what is fiction.

But this is not simply convincing story-telling. Through the diversity of forms employed, the nature of narrative itself is questioned. It is, as we see, quite possible to tell a story through a case report, or a treatise on biology and zoology, or a history. If these are fiction, then what of other narrative forms of the same nature? Do they truthfully reflect the world of our experience, or are they, too, manufactured truths, tailored to fit a narrative sprung from a single imagination? What of the encrypted story of "The Man Who Had No Eyes?" Is it less of a story because it foregrounds the nature of the process of reading, the decoding of a series of prompts on a page and the way in which this is, in fact, a process which resides with the reader, rather than the text, or is it simply a challenge to the reader to make sense of the elements of a story, the same challenge which has been employed by Lars Gorling and Samuel Beckett, in differing ways? Yet the use of experimental technique does not render these stories less delightful, simply because of their interrogation of conventional forms. If anything, the delight, the pleasure of the text, is increased by discoveries and surprises which the text holds. This delight is not simply an intellectual one, as the text itself is not simply an intellectual exercise. It is bawdy, sensual, profane and exhilarating, filled with clowns and demons, lovers and traitors, saints and madmen.

If you cannot buy City of Saints and Madmen, chain yourself to the library steps until they bring in a copy for you, then steal it from the library. Loan it only to those over whom you have a sure hold. It is your guide to Ambergris, and you may just find that you live there.

Copyright © 2002 Ian Nichols

Ian Nichols is studying for his Masters degree at the University of Western Australia, and is fortunate enough to be studying in the area he most enjoys; Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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